If you’re lost at sea without proper resources, your chances of survival are slim. I never imagined that I would see my classroom as a boat full of cast-aways just trying to survive. I’ve spent close to 15 years in the classroom and have seen many changes in education – some that are good and some that aren’t so great. I don’t teach the way I did when I started. I don’t even teach the way I did a year ago. Standards have increased in difficulty and expectations have become greater as well. Classes that were considered advanced level (like Algebra 2) several years ago are now part of the minimum requirements to receive a high school diploma. For the general population, these changes have not only been good but necessary. I don’t teach the general population though.
I look at my teenage students, all who struggle with severe learning disabilities or autism or emotional disabilities, and I worry if they are lost at sea. These are the students that don’t have the academic or social or emotional ability to keep up in the regular classroom. As the general population moves forward in bigger and faster boats, my students are left floating in a make-shift raft just trying to keep their heads above water. There are so many rewards for successful students which provide valuable incentives and motivation to meet the increasing demands of high school. Students can get college scholarships, better jobs, and recognition. What about those students in my classes though? Most of my students will not receive a high school diploma because they are unable to meet the minimum requirements. They are aware of this and yet they are expected to show up everyday and learn what they can. I struggle at teaching them life skills that will aid in their survival in the adult world, pushing and challenging them for their best but knowing that for some, their best still won’t be good enough outside my door.
This year we’ve heard of many new expectations for us as teachers and for our students. While reflecting over these upcoming changes I couldn’t help but try to find a way to describe what this may mean to my students. I am not a science expert or even a science enthusiast, but some parallels began rolling around in my mind. I was reminded of the time many years ago when as a student I studied saltwater’s effects on the body. Previously I had never understood how someone could be lost at sea, surrounded by all of that water, and yet still die of dehydration. My recollection of that lesson is that the human body can’t use the saltwater for hydration. Salt dehydrates the body. The more salt that is consumed, the more fresh water is needed to counteract the salt’s effects. You can drink ocean water all day long (if you can deal with the taste) but your thirst will only increase. Your body will quickly become dehydrated and eventually your organs will begin to shut down. If intense interventions aren’t made quickly, you will eventually die. Is this what learning is like for my students?
Are my students lost in the sea of education? Are their only options the saltwater of increased expectations? Their brains are not like the brains of the other students. They can’t “metabolize” information like other students. Yet they must continuously consume concepts their brains can’t process. The more they take in that is beyond their comprehension level, the further behind they get. They’ve had years of disappointment and “failures” in the eyes of education. Have their minds and attitudes begun to shut down and is their learning dying a slow death? Are all of these increased expectations dehydrating their brains of the ability to process what they did have the ability for? Instead of helping their brains sustain learning and thrive, are those resources being robbed to combat the incoming information that the brain can’t make sense of?
My students have so many abilities and can experience success in so many ways, but because these abilities are not “up to par” with the mainstream, I fear they have been perceived as castaways. They’ve been left to float way behind the increasingly powerful speedboats the rest of the students have been equipped with and are able to navigate. They’ve been left to survive in a world of saltwater information. They aren’t provided with the necessary resources and interventions to be able to keep up. I’m not even sure what those resources would need to be in order to equalize the effects. I only know that I see students who have learned to accept failure and have started to give up on educational survival. I don’t have the answers and it’s heartbreaking to watch valuable individuals be stripped of their worth due to an outside mold they will never be able to fit into. Look at the research and you will see that even if they can survive outside that mold, they are not thriving. They will always be surrounded by society’s saltwater. There has to be a way to teach them how to modify that saltwater on their own in order for them to thrive. No area of brain science has been able to do that with 100% success…yet.